Reading Material: Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/martin-buber-on-education/. Retrieved: 21st October 2014]

This article offers not only an explanation of the theories of Buber in relation to education but also some insight into how the man himself practiced his teaching principals when communicating and educating his own pupils through the accounts of Aubrey Hodes. Buber came from a Jewish background in a time when being a Jewish Austrian citizen was particularly challenging with the ominous spectre of the Third Reich in the 30s and 40s and the heated political debate that accompanied the Zionist movement throughout his lifetime. The article cites that his relationship to his faith and how it related to his philosophical theories went through a series of changes throughout his lifetime, with early mysticism and acceptance of traditional teachings giving way to more controversial dialogue based philosophies and approaches.  This latter stage of his thinking was condemned in certain sections of the Jewish community for his willingness to open the door to dialogue with the German population so soon after the fall of Hitler’s regime.

The approach to education favoured by Buber is one with an emphasis on sharing and communicating via an open dialogue rather that a single perspective. He explains this through the concept of I-You relationships in which both parties are not experienced as singular, or separate but is experienced as an ebb and flow of ideas, concepts and communication that can be expressed through attentive silence as well as verbal communication. By contrast the I-It form of relationship is one of two separate entities, where ideas and concepts may be broadcast and verbalised but in which there is not genuine dialogue and fluid communication. These relationships allow distance and distinction between parties, denying the chance for relation to result from the encounter.

The term encounter is also explored as Buber has a very clear interest in the concept of the encounter. This is defined by Smith as being “an event or situation in which relation (Beiziehung) occurs”. This “relation” is seen as the connection and communication of ideas and concepts from which all worthwhile and creative endeavour is born, hence Buber’s statement that “all real living is meeting.

Buber’s focus on an open exchange of ideas or meeting of mind is a stark contrast to the Marxist and conflict theories of education in which struggle is the means of social betterment and progress, rather than being a struggle between class, Buber cites and exchange of ideas and dialogue between individuals. Buber focuses on cohesive community concepts that rely on active and receptive community builders that form the foundations of society, fostered through character building and ethical education. The concept of those who a self-serving and closed to other viewpoints gaining power within the community and the consequences of such a situation are not adequately explored. But the intention of the theory is clear; only through dialogue and ethical education can the educator fulfil their primary role of creating a social responsible individual through encouraging the pupil’s “instinct for communion”. Informal learning and setting an example for students is also cited by Buber as being particularly helpful in educating and encouraging social responsibility, his dedication to this theory is evidenced by Hodes firsthand account cited in the article.

What questions does this reading raise?

Is Buber describing a theory that is far too passive to implement real social change?

If I-it relationships cannot be moved towards I-You relationships without the willingness and active attentiveness of both parties how can Buber’s approach be applied to everyday social work?

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